Local poet Louisa Campbell has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prizes to be announced later this year. Here, the former mental health nurse tells Eileen Leahy how she was inspired to write poetry and what it’s like to have her work both published and publicly recognized.
Tunbridge Wells poet Louisa Campbell has been shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prizes for Best Single Poem 2022, for what she describes as a ‘humorous yet meaningful poem’, titled Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100 .
“If you haven’t heard of the Forward Prizes, it’s like Crufts, but for poems,” Louisa explains with a wry smile.
“It is surreal that my poem has been selected as one of the five most exciting poems published in the British Isles this year,” she adds.
Louisa says she came to poetry late in life, so the reward of being shortlisted for her work is all the sweeter.
“At 53, having been through multiple traumas, and been both a mental health nurse and a patient, I had so much I wanted to say to the world. I discovered that poetry can evoke experiences that would otherwise be difficult to put into words, and I had a lot of complicated experiences that I wanted to explain.
“Having a poem like ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’ shortlisted for the Forwards is validation of a poet’s desire to shed inhibitions and indulge in silliness!”
Six years ago, bedridden with an autoimmune disease, lupus, Louisa found herself enjoying writing in bed “with a Bic ballpoint pen and a hardcover notebook.”
“With nothing to lose, I tried the Open University Creative Writing course and found that I not only loved every second, but got good grades!
“During the course, we had to learn different forms of poetry, but for me it made no sense. Why on earth would anyone want to limit themselves to writing something like a sextina? Then I discovered ‘the rhythm found ‘ and I was hooked! One of my earliest poems started, ‘I know it’s ridiculous | to think my dead husband lives inside my dog | but he is’ and I got it all immediately knew it was the beginning of a poem because of its repetitive rhythm – its music – in my head it had a nice swing.
Louisa published her first collection of poetry The Happy Bus in 2017 and then The Ward in 2018. Last year her most recent work titled Beautiful Nowhere was published and this work is the one featuring the poem Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100 which has been shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prizes.
“Poetry can create fantastic worlds. In my new collection of poems, Beautiful Nowhere, love flees, dragging the sky behind it as it goes; patients become their paperwork and fly away. Poetry can evoke experiences such as depression and psychosis, as well as friendship, love, and recovery. In this way, the poetry explains in a multi-layered way that a medical textbook could never compete with.
Louisa goes on to say that her work as a mental health nurse therapist has seen her work with the dynamic subconscious – something she believes poetry does too.
“My poems tend to fall from my subconscious directly onto the page, and I don’t know what I’m writing about until the poem is written. There’s a poem in Beautiful Nowhere about living with bipolar that I wrote before I knew I had it!
Although, as Louise explains, there is a lot of joy and light in Beautiful Nowhere, it mostly covers serious issues of trauma and mental illness.
“Putting it out kind of meant I could give myself permission to have fun and play. I think as adults we really need to play more; laugh and be silly. To have a poem like “Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100”, with its ridiculously long title, and the use of only the words “human” and “dog”, shortlisted for the Forwards is a validation of the desire of a poet to throw away your inhibitions and indulge in stupidity! Sometimes I find the term “word art” more useful than the word “poetry”, and I’m so glad the judges of this year’s Forward Prize clearly understand this concept and embrace it.
“My poems tend to fall from my subconscious directly onto the page, and I don’t know what I’m writing about until the poem is written”
“Of course, the other thing about ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’ is that – as with everything I write – the poem is loaded with meaning if the reader so chooses. It can s act of isolation, difference or inclusiveness and acceptance It can be other ways of seeing – in this case, a dog’s perspective.
“The title can be an excavation of the rule of using specificity in our writing, or a validation of that rule – it’s up to the reader to decide. But what I want most of all is for its readers to have the most delicious connection experience: a good laugh.
Louisa explains how the inspiration for the poem came to her: “Years ago I took my Staffordshire bull terrier, Biggles, to the vet on the bus, and he sat on my coat on the seat at next to me. I imagined us from outside the bus, with a row of human heads interrupted by those of a dog. Looking out the bus window, I saw people pointing and smiling.
“Many years later I was having fun in the Facebook group ‘April Poem a Day’ (hosted by Devon poet Simon Williams), and had recently raised money to bring Romanian street dogs to the Kingdom United for adoption.
“I remembered Biggles on the bus and thought how fabulous it would be if dogs could just jump on planes with humans, and the poem was born.”
It was poet Bethan Rees who told Louisa how much she loved her, but it wasn’t until Louisa came across Perverse – which she says is “one of the most liberating poetry publications around.” to the world” – which she seriously considered submitting for publication.
“I was incredibly excited when the poem was accepted, let alone published, and then really happy that it got a lot of likes and retweets on Twitter, so other people must have liked it too!”
We now have to wait until November 28 to find out if Louisa’s poem “Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100” is the winner of this year’s prize, which will be announced at the Forward Prizes ceremony in Manchester. In Louisa’s category, other poets include Nick Laird, Clare Pollard, Cecilia Knapp and Carl Phillips. The overall winner will receive a prize of £1,000.
Beautiful Nowhere published by Boatwhistle Books and priced at £9.50 is available from all good bookstores.